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Christie’s Puts Sports Photography GOAT Walter Iooss Jr. On The Auction Block

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Christie’s Puts Sports Photography GOAT Walter Iooss Jr. On The Auction Block

Most sports photographers count their lucky stars if they capture just one single moment that will live on forever in the hearts of fans. A generational talent, Walter Iooss Jr. has made a habit of racking up immortal images of the heroes of the game across the sports spectrum. For over half a century Iooss Jr’s intrepid eye and audacious lens has framed the center of action with one scintillating slam dunk of an image after another. If the International Photography Hall of Fame inductee had his own baseball card, the stats on the back would tell you that his Sports Illustrated cover count is 300-plus and he’s published 13 books including Classic Golf and the New York Times #1 bestseller Rare Air: Michael on Michael.

Christie’s The Athlete: Photographs by Walter Iooss, Jr. runs through August 11th and features a lineup of 38 seminal works spanning from the 1960s-2000s. We go deep with Iooss Jr. on a journey through the past while touching on the back stories behind some of his greatest shots.

Mike Dojc: If I said to a 20-year-old Walter Iooss Jr. that one day people would gladly pay five-figures for one of your photos at an auction at Christie’s what would you think at the time?

Walter Iooss Jr.: That they were a lunatic. I always preach to my grand kids, you have to do something you love if you can find something. Not everybody gets the opportunity to have something placed in their hands and take to it. I remember processing my first roll of film in 1959 with my old man and we pull it out of the tank and hold it up to the light, and as someone once said, my future was unlocked and that was it. Goner.

MD: Do you remember your first ever assignment for Sports Illustrated?

Iooss: I graduated high school in 1961 and two weeks after my graduation Sports Illustrated gives me my first assignment. It was for a story that used to be called ‘Pat On The Back,’ on the last page of the magazine. It was about a normal person who did something athletic—no stars. My father, Walter Senior, takes me to Groton, Connecticut where there was an 84-year-old sailor named Archie Chester who was getting his big moment in Sports Illustrated at last. I remember being introduced to him by my dad. When he finds out I’m going to be the one taking the picture, the face of Archie was like ‘you can’t be serious. You’re going to let a boy do a man’s job!’ I was obviously petrified but that was assignment number one.

MD: Magazine photographer used to just be a job back when you first started but then some photographers became stars.

Iooss: The whole Time & Life scene created photographers who became celebrated. They all had an office on the 28th floor of the Time & Life building where the photo lab printed probably more great prints than any other lab in the history of the world. You could run into anyone: Ralph Crane, Gordon Marks, Co Rentmeester, Gjon Mili; a big mistake was I didn’t get one of his prints.  I love Gjon Mili’s work. Eisie (Alfred Eisenstadt) had his office, Carl Mydans too and you could take any piece of equipment from the equipment room right across from their offices. At the petty cash window you could say “I’m going to Buffalo for two days, could I have $4000? No problem.”  I think Sports Illustrated changed peoples concept of what a photographer was.  When I started it was a job to go from game-to-game-to-game nonstop.

MD: When did you start being looked at in a different light?

Iooss: There was a big change in the middle of 1982. My agent got a call from Edelman, the public relations firm in New York City. They call us into their office and they wanted me to try Fujifilm. No one uses Fujifilm and no one’s even heard of it. So, I went to a game in Dallas and tested a roll. There was horrible light in that stadium. I came back, Sports Illustrated processed the film and this film destroyed Kodak’s high speed Ektachrome. Then they offered me a two-year project for a lot of money documenting the US athletes as they trained and competed for the ’84 Olympics. So that changed the way I shot, I mean I’d been doing this a little bit, but we had total access to every athlete. There were no other photographers, you could do anything you want and the budget was unlimited. I stayed three weeks at the Beverly Hill Hotel during the Olympics and you can imagine what that bill looked like. I remember getting it and it was like a novel.  Museums took that work and the first show I ever had was at ICP in New York, then we went to the Chicago Art Museum and then to San Diego. So that changed the way I worked and I started to move into advertising after that where you make money. It could be Nike one day, Adidas the next day, and then Puma. It was a good period.

MD: What do you remember most from photographing that Olympics?

Iooss: Being on the floor with Mary Lou Retton who I’d shot many times. She was a very personable girl and it’s before her final vault, I’m on the floor, one of the few cool positions in the entire arena.  I just said to her: ‘What are you going to do?’ And she says: ‘I’m going to get a perfect 10’ and then she did. The chills I got in my body. That’s my favorite memory. After Mary Lou, I’d say the Beverly Hills Hotel would be number two with the Polo Lounge and the pool with Sven the lifeguard. My favorite hotel in the world.

MD: Do you think there is a line between sports photography that is memorabilia and sports photography that is fine art?

Iooss: I think certain images that I’ve taken and certain images that other people have taken. What might separate art? I think of ‘The Blue Dunk’ of Michael Jordan. It’s a completely conceptual picture, everything is there is for a reason. I brought a basket in from St. Louis, put it in a specific spot. One parking lot was painted red, and one was painted blue because I didn’t know what color uniform he is going to show up it. So that was a conceptual image and one of my favorites.

MD: One of your philosophical maxims is to always finish a shoot early, how has that principal served you well?

Iooss: I’m very punctual on either end. I can’t stand people who are late. Plenty of athletes used to show up late. We used to have pools, when is so-and-so going to show up: 45 minutes, an hour and a half, two hours, three hours? Ending a shoot early became part of the competitive nature that I have and the athlete, I think they appreciate the fact that you can do it quickly and well.

MD: You once had only 7 ½ minutes with Tiger Woods. How’d you nail it despite the time crunch?

Iooss: I’m going to shoot Tiger and he comes into the room and everybody’s fast because it’s quick. The first thing I do is start talking very slowly, give him a hug, say ‘Tiger I want you to come over and I want to show you what we are going to do on the laptop.’  But instead of showing him what we are going to do I go straight into Swimsuit Issue girls. Bingo! I’ve got his attention. I think you have to disarm people sometimes because he comes in with the agent, the publicity people and they are all like “its ten o’clock when are we going to go?’  I remember the last time I shot Tiger we had ten minutes and I’m watching the watch as close as anyone on earth. Nine minutes. ‘Ok, we’re done Tiger.’ And they always remember this, plus they trust that you have gotten what is important.

MD: What do players in locker rooms typically ask you about your Swimsuit Issue work?

Iooss: They wanted to get a date. In the past, you walk into a locker room and no one wanted to talk to you. But in the 1980s, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue was a Primetime television event and you’re with the most beautiful girls in the world.  I walk into a locker room and a guy would say ‘hey, you’re a photographer in the swimsuit issue, can you get me Heidi Klum’s number?’ No names but to a certain player, I would say, ‘listen here’s what I’ll do,  I’ll give you their agent’s number.’  That certainly helped my reputation with the athletes.

MD: Is there something in a still image captured in 1/1000th of a second that can be completely lost in the motion of video?

Iooss: Yes. Watch the video of ‘The Catch,’ which I think still is the most exciting sports video that exists. You watch Montana roll right, run backwards and throw this pass. It’s sorta blurry but you can see all the photographers and people on the edge of the sidelines in that mud pit of Candlestick Park and you can spot me. Think how quick that one moment was and how significant that game became in the history of football. Sports Illustrated put it on its cover four days later and called it the ‘Super Catch’ and it is the most famous play in pro football history. If you think of the famous moments in the history of sport, Bobby Thomson’s homerun in 1951 and maybe ‘The Catch.”

MD: When doing athlete portraits, is it hard sometimes to break through the facade of who an athlete projects themselves to be to capture the real person inside?

Iooss: I think if you have ten minutes with somebody you may not capture the whole spirit of a person. I remember the first time I did LeBron, I asked the PR guy when the ten minutes starts and he says ‘the moment he walks in the room’. I was using an 8×10 Polaroid and a regular camera. An 8×10 Polaroid is a very slow process but as I always like to do, I’d rather wait three minutes and at least talk briefly with this person I’ve never met, that I knew already was a sensational athlete, and try to show him what we are trying to do. There are a lot of photographers that are very good at befriending and creating a scene in a short period of time because that’s what they do. You meet someone for the first time, you have to ingratiate yourself, you may never see them again. That’s all part of it.

MD: When you have a preexisting relationship with an athlete, do you find you get better results?

Iooss: Yes, and the longer I got to know specific people—Griffey, Kobe, Michael, Montana in particular—the less time you wanted to spend time photographing them and the more you wanted to talk to them because they are such interesting people. Michael enjoys photography, he’s got more equipment than I do. Kobe was such an interesting person to speak to, so interested in so many things. He’d say ‘take as long as you want’ and we’d just sit there and bs for however long. So those were nice relationships I had.

MD: Do you always known in the moment when you get the shot you want?

Iooss: One photographer once told me, edit from the back because the last picture you take, whether it’s in ten minutes or an hour, you know you have it. The early pictures are sort of a warm-up many times.  I’ve always believed that’s right. If you are shooting a lot of pictures, say 500 pictures, why start from the beginning?  The best stuff is at the end.

MD: Has an athlete ever surprised you by their ability to pose on same level as a supermodel?

Iooss: You couldn’t take a bad picture of Michael Jordan. But the one person for one day, who was the best ever, was Kevin Garnett. He had these high cheek bones—he was just it. He was like Elle Macpherson, everything he did was perfect.  One day in Minneapolis in 1999, I had a studio set up but first we were going to drive him around and he had a bullet proof car—not a dumb thing to do in Minneapolis. We went to Jimmy Jam’s house and Terry Lewis’s house, the record producers, and it was fun meeting these guys but I’m wondering when are we going to shoot? So 9 p.m. we start to shoot and in that one hour, I think is the best set of photography I’ve ever done in one day.

MD: Your shot of Gary Templeton and Tony Scott just chilling on a bench is really amazing. Did that happen organically?

Iooss: It wasn’t like I walked into the stadium and they happened to be sitting there. What seems like an accident in many cases has already been planned. I’d been in Dodgers Stadium many, many times. There are two pictures from Dodgers stadium in the collection. One is a scoreboard at twilight with palm trees with Piazza. I tried that shot on three different occasions, over a period of years when the incandescent light in the stadium was perfectly balanced with the twilight. Now Scott and Templeton had the blue uniforms. I went to a Phillies game and they have a blue uniform on the road but it was a little different. I remember shooting that with the blue walls at Dodgers stadium, but then I looked at the Cardinals uniforms and it was perfect. So, I sat in the dugout pre-game, sort of waiting and you can see they are completely disinterested in me which makes it even better.

MD: What’s the story behind your Michael Jordan Polaroid where he’s icing his foot?

Iooss: When I went to do my interview at Christie’s I said this is the one picture I almost regret giving you. I love Polaroids, of every variety from the SX-70 to the Spectra, up to the 20 X 24 Polaroid, it’s just in that minute or two minutes it took to watch something develop in front of you. That was in a gym in one of the worst towns in New Jersey, Secaucus. I had a little flash off to the side, it’s just a meaningless picture, except it’s Jordan. He’s got his foot stuck in a Gatorade vat icing it before the game. I altered the Polaroid by moving the emulsion around, that’s why it’s got that painterly look. You would do that after a couple of minutes, keep the Polaroid warm and move the emulsion around. He hated signing things and he called me the worst offender of them all in asking for autographs, but everyone I worked with wanted his autograph.

MD: What photographers do you collect?

Iooss: Our basement here in Montauk, it’s like the easternmost art gallery. We can start close to the top with Irving Penn and I have a lot of Peter Beard. Also, Mary Ellen Mark, Annie Leibowitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Steve McCurry (one of the all-timers), O. Winston Link (the guy who shot the railroads), Joe Rosenthal (raising the flag on Iwo Jima), and Herman Leonard (the great jazz photographer). My father was a jazz musician and Herman sounded like the musicians I was introduced to as a child, he had that style of speech. Another one I collect, and my favorite photographer edge-to-edge is James Nachtwey. He’s an old friend of mine. There is not one millimeter of his frames that are not perfect. The best pictures by photographers, they don’t want them cropped, because everything in that picture is perfect.

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Fashion

Fashion Briefing: Fashion’s emerging founder-investors are mega-influencers – Glossy

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Fashion Briefing: Fashion’s emerging founder-investors are mega-influencers – Glossy

Fashion’s OG Instagrammers are building empires and, at the same time, growing their influence beyond the industry.

After being schooled for years on the workings of the fashion industry, mega-influencers including Danielle Bernstein (2.7 million Instagram followers) and Rocky Barnes (2.5 million Instagram followers) are graduating to careers less reliant on brands. To take it to the next level, they’re leveraging their prowess and communities, driving deals with effective business partners, and evolving their focus, based on the industry’s direction and their own passions. The emerging results, for both Bernstein and Barnes, are personally-backed brands and investment portfolios set to expand based on early successes.

“The plan is to grow, in a big way,” said Bernstein. “I’m a serial entrepreneur, so I’ll always want to introduce new businesses and categories to my brand. And I’m angel investing and joining the board of advisors for so many companies. That’s the future of the creator economy: harnessing and creating community around your existing followers and then figuring out how to monetize that.”

In 2019, upon inking a licensing deal with New York-based clothing company Onia, Bernstein launched the Shop We Wore What e-commerce site, populated with her expanding We Wore What fashion collection. The collection has been at the center of much recent controversy, due to allegedly including copycat designs. According to Bernstein, she turns to vintage pieces, editorials and travel for inspiration. Bernstein’s also become an investor and advisor for hair supplement company Wellbel and CBD brand Highline Wellness. In May, she became active on Patreon, offering exclusive video content to paying members of her community.

In addition, Bernstein heads up We Gave What, a charitable arm of her company. In 2019, she launched tech company Moe Assist with a project management tool for influencers, though its social accounts have been inactive for two-plus months. When asked for comment, a spokesperson said Moe Assist is in a new fundraising stage and “should have news to share shortly.”

Barnes, meanwhile, partnered with Reunited Clothing to come out with her apparel company, The Bright Side, in December. And she recently became a first-time investor-advisor, for 6-month-old SMS shopping platform Qatch. She announced the partnership in an Instagram post on Monday.

“I feel like a grown-up,” she told me, before confirming that she’s interested in investing in more companies. “Diversifying my business has been a really big [focus] for me. I interact with so many different brands and companies on a daily basis. Using my market knowledge in ways that can help other people is fulfilling and exciting for me. And I especially love when I can be involved with a company from the beginning.”

Building on their content creator role in fashion is a natural progression, both said. And it plays into many industry shifts: On its way out is fashion’s DTC era, largely fueled by Harvard Business School and Wharton graduates using a plug-and-play, marketing-heavy business model to launch brands. More consumers are prioritizing quality, differentiated products, making industry experience and style expertise greater virtues among insiders. At the same time, consumers are increasingly taking shopping cues from relatable, platform-native celebrities, moving on from authoritative editors and more closed-off celebrities.

The school of collaborations
The collaborator-to-founder shift isn’t the newest thing. Other longtime influencers that have made the pivot include Arielle Charnas, with Something Navy; Aimee Song, with Song of Style; Rumi Neely, with Are You Am I; the list goes on. Most often, the names behind these brands don’t have formal design and business training — for her part, Bernstein said she “went to FIT for two years, but didn’t study design and production.” But, for years, they’ve worked hand-in-hand with companies to bring their visions to life. And along the way, they’ve come to know what resonates best with their vast communities, from marketing to merchandising to product.

“My most successful collaborations have led to the largest share of my business,” said Bernstein.

Bernstein’s partnership with Onia came out of her swimwear collaboration with its Onia brand, in May 2019. On the collab’s launch day, it drove $2 million in sales, and an included style was the brand’s best-selling swimsuit of the summer. Also in 2019, Bernstein collaborated with Joe’s Jeans on multiple denim collections. The launch day of the first, in March 2019, marked Joe Jeans’ best sales day to date, said Jennifer Hawkins, the brand’s svp of marketing and innovation on a Glossy Podcast in October.

Both served as learning opportunities for Bernstein, who said — as with all of her collaborations — she took full advantage: “It was never just [uploading] a post, and then I went away,” she said. “I always wanted to know how the performance was, in terms of sales, and asked questions: ‘Can you share the analytics?’ ‘What did you see on your end?’ ‘What worked and what didn’t work?’”

She added, “They provided a ton of data, in terms of what I could sell and what the market was missing.”

Likewise, she said, she always followed and shared with partner brands the Instagram Insights and Google Analytics numbers around her corresponding posts. Doing so gave all parties a 360-degree view of a collaboration’s success.

“I’ve learned what works for brands so they get the largest return on their investment,” she said.

For example, she’s learned to lean on her audience’s tastes, versus rely on her own, by allowing them to offer feedback throughout the design process through Instagram. That’s included the selection of fabrics and colors and the fit sessions with models. She only spotlights her favorite styles and what she wears in her own social posts, as a play for authenticity.

According to Bernstein, the collaborations with brands allowing her to play an advisor role — by guiding them on influencer partnerships, marketing and messaging — are always more successful. And they often turn into longer-term investment or advising partnerships.

Bernstein chose to work with Onia on the We Wore What collection based on its prioritization of quality and fit, and ability to keep to affordable retail prices. Currently, prices on the We Wore What site range from $20, for a scrunchie, to $228, for a vegan leather jumpsuit.

Barnes was also ready to go out on her own after finding the right partners. Her Reunited Clothing partnership came after working with the company to create her Express product collaboration, in early 2019. On its first-quarter 2019 earnings call, interim CEO Matthew C. Moullering said the company had seen “a strong start to [the] collection both in-stores and online and [believed] it [was] helping to introduce the brand to a new audience.”

“Having your own brand is terrifying,” Barnes said. “But I like that I’m in control and not so dependent on doing the day-to-day posts promoting other companies.”

But, she added, “One of the huge benefits of working with all these different brands on all these different projects is that we’re constantly getting introduced to new people and seeing who we like working with.”

Barnes’ internal team consists of her husband, who’s the “business brains” of the company, she said, and an assistant.

Like Bernstein, Barnes stressed the need for outside support in the production process: “I love such quirky, crazy things, but I also understand what is realistic for a buyer and a normal girl buying clothes,” she said. “The experience of taking ideas and making them work for a bigger group of people was my learning curve going into a business. It’s important to have a good, diverse team around you who can make your idea something that’s marketable.”

For its part, We Wore What has seen “200x growth in the last year,” as it’s expanded to new categories, Bernstein said. Its ready-to-wear, swimwear, resort wear, and activewear are now sold in “dozens and dozens of retailers around the world,” many of which offer style exclusives; they include Revolve, Bloomingdale’s and Intermix.

“Launching my own brand was putting the proof in the pudding for the power of influencers, when it comes to selling product,” she said.

As with her Joe’s and Onia collaborations, Bernstein sees a rush-to-buy with We Wore What product drops. “The first 10 minutes is when we see the biggest portion of our sales for the entire collection,” she said.

To build buzz, Shop We Wore What’s Instagram account (213,000 followers) features in its Stories the line sheets of the soon-to-launch styles, allowing customers to thoughtfully plan their buy. Doing so has led to lower return rates, Bernstein said. The company’s marketing mix also includes text messages and emails, VIP discounts and user-generated content.

Bernstein has a staff of four people, which include a chief operating officer and a brand coordinator. She said she prioritizes establishing partners with skills and expertise she doesn’t have, so she can learn from them along the way. Ideally, she’d have learned about tech packs, fittings and production logistics in school, but she’s training as she goes.

Moving forward, Bernstein said she plans to extend the size range of We What What styles, which are currently available in sizes XS-XXL, and launch collections with collaborators to sell exclusively on her brand’s DTC site. In addition, she aims to eventually open “experimental” physical retail, starting with pop-ups.

As for her investment-advisor portfolio, she’s currently in talks with companies centered on the concepts of “being able to sell your closet and even rent your closet.”

As for Barnes’ Bright Side, she said it will hit “a bunch of new retailers this year.”

Moving beyond fashion
Up next for Shop We Wore What is a new product category that will hit before the holiday season. Considering her passion for home furnishings and decor — based on her @homeworewhat Instagram account (7,500 followers) and recent press coverage of her new SoHo loft — it’s a safe bet that a home-related category is in the cards.

Likewise, Barnes hinted at a future Bright Side home collection, following her recent, two-year home remodel, which she’s getting set to debut on social media.

Lifestyle brands are the clear goal.

“I would love to be a combination of Rachel Zoe and Martha Stewart, just having my hands in everything and creating this really beautiful lifestyle where you can entertain and be fashionable,” Barnes said. “That’s kind of the dream.”

She added, “Fashion is where my heart has always been, but I’m growing as a person and there’s so much more in my life right now: my family, my home — and I’m getting older, so beauty [and skin care] makes sense now. Sharing all of that with everyone seems so natural; it would be weird if I only did fashion.”

As for future investments, though Quatch fits perfectly into Barnes’ world, with its fashion-tech focus, she said she’s open to investing in any company where she sees opportunity.

What’s more, she has no plans to retire from social media, though she has yet to tackle TikTok.

“People’s need for content has only increased, so I’m posting and creating content more than ever,” Barnes said. “But I’ve learned to become more of a hard-ass with brands. The companies that are willing to work with me and [facilitate] the most like authentic relationship possible are the ones I move forward with.” Reunited can attest.

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South African bowler Tabraiz Shamsi: Amateur magician; professional tweaker-trickster

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Harry Potter fans would know this as the Room of Requirement; muggle cricketers dub it backend operations. Tabraiz Shamsi is an amateur magician. He is also a professional worrier of why some googlies don’t turn as much as he’d want, in cricket.

For the Proteas chinaman bowler, the room of requirement from where he could pull out any game data, used to be the dependable ‘P Dawgg’, former South Africa analyst Prasanna Agoram combining his ken and nous and fast processing laptop. Prasanna enviably would be privy to the trial (and error) runs of Magician Shamsi’s classical Tourniquet coin-drops with the cricket ball. Which was the unglamorous, quirk-in-progress of his left-arm leg spin.

At the stroke of 1 a.m, oftener than not, Shamsi would come looking for what he called ‘shit balls’, in what Prasanna reckoned were otherwise impressive, less-than-run-a-ball bowling spells. This was that one specific delivery that went for a six to sully Shamsi’s 4-0-22-3 T20 match figures. It was the bugs, not the features, that the 29-year-old would cussedly fixate on.

“I’d never point out that he’s missing his length or the back foot was collapsing, at 12.30 in the night. Because Shamo, you see, would then take me to the nets at 1 a.m! He’s capable of calling the manager and telling him at that hour that I have to practice NOW. You had to be careful about what you told him at 1 a.m,” Prasanna laughs, underlining ungrudging admiration for the Proteas spinner’s dedication.

A series of self-recriminations in staccato would follow the ‘Bhai, can you please put on the shit-ball that went for a six.’ “He’d curse himself watching replays: ‘no good, not international class, garbage ball.’ If you try telling him it is ‘well-played’ from Jos Butler and not exactly a poor ball, he’d be hard on himself and say, ‘This is nonsense from Shamo’,” Prasanna recalls of his exacting standards.

For, the South African World No 1 spinner – who lends mystery to the Saffer bowling attack if not entirely upstaging their thunderbolt battery of pacers – knows that all sleights of hand, can come with uncontrollable twists of fate. Both in magic, and cricket.

A young boy of 15 at Paarl who tried to bowl quick like Wasim Akram and Chaminda Vaas, had wound up as a left arm leg spin all-sorts, after years of compulsive fine-tuning. And taken failures and omissions into his run-up’s five-strides.

***
Born in Johannesburg, Shamsi wanted to be a super quick in the land of bolting pacers. His progress though didn’t follow the regular route of being identified early for First teams at schools and playing age-groups. Also, he was told he wasn’t quick enough.

Speaking to the podcast ‘Pavilion conversations with C.S’ recently, Shamsi recalls his earliest break at age 15, bowling alone in the school nets, with the cricket coach’s office nearby. The coach would stop by and ask him what he was upto. “I said, ‘Sir, the U15 trials are coming up. I want to make the Paarl team wanna progress’. He told me – you are not gonna make it. But even there I thought he realised the type of character I am. That was just his way to push me even harder. He said ‘Don’t waste your time practicing coz you won’t get selected. And i was even more driven,” he told the host Mr. Chiwanza.

Shamsi would end up with most wickets that tournament, make the B team (“Still not A”), followed by U17 and U19s for the local side. “I didn’t get selected for SA U19s or invited to camps. My past was little different. In fact I got my opportunity at semi-pro cricket because one player got selected for U19s and went to the World Cup. A spot opened up because of him. I just knew that was my chance I had to make it work. And fortunately I performed. When he came back from the World Cup, he couldn’t get into the team,” Shamsi recalled.

It was around 2015-6 after he had zeroed in on Chinaman as his chosen bag of assorted tricks in franchise, provincial cricket, that he first sought out Prasanna, while closely following senior leggie and his ‘bruv’ Imran Tahir. Prasanna promised to compile a list of outstanding T20 spinners of that year for comparison, when Shamsi asked him: ‘Why just T20? I want to play all formats.’

Prasanna promised to revert after two days on Friday, and on Monday, he had a message from the hotel lobby at 10.30 am that Shamsi was waiting. “Normally, cricketers will turn up at 11.30, if the analyst time is 10.30. This guy made me abandon my breakfast and was ready with a list of questions. I’d prepared a presentation earlier on bowlers like Warne, Ajmal and Herath and how they bowled on unhelpful tracks, what lengths to bowl at what stage, and offered to email it to him. He tells me: “No. I’ll write it down in my own words. I don’t want shortcuts.”

Shamsi would sit and plan for every batsman – his notes diary in tow, even on matchdays when he wasn’t in Playing XI. And once he would spill the beans on why brainwaves struck him at 1 a.m – his preferred time to brainstorm with the analyst. “He once told me he eats my brain at that hour, so that he gets dreams of how to get a Kohli or Sharma out, so he can wake up next day he can execute the training plans.”

Once he came angsty about his googlies not spinning as much as Kuldeep Yadav or Brad Hogg. “When he said it’s not spinning, I told him Shamo’ you didn’t bowl any googly. That’s it. He hit the nets and bowled 1000 googlies non-stop and then said, he’s now hitting the groove.”

But nothing had prepared Prasanna for Shamsi’s mic-drop in the pink ball Test against Australia where the Chinaman was fancied as it’s tougher to spot the wrist in the Adelaidian twilight. Shamsi was instructed to block for 20 balls and support Faf as Proteas were hanging on at 210-9. Shamsi would announce he would score a 50 – against Pat Cummins, Hazlewood and Starc. Finally he was unbeaten on 18. “He came back and blustered ‘If someone had suported me, I’d have hit that 50’.”

***

This constant state of ‘upbeat’ – talking up his own abilities to score a 50 coming at No 11 against Cummins & Starc – might well be the sort of swag and sizzle that the staid South African teams need at ICC tournaments. For a large part of the last 30 years, the Proteas have entered tournaments with burdensome tags of ‘talented’ and ‘favourites’ and come up short. The tasteless mocking glee of choke-jokes has run its course, and being light-weights might well prove liberating.

For all their botched run chases in 50 overs, South Africa can stake claim to the historic highest run-rally to 438. And the innings-interval remark of Jacques Kallis, the most expensive bowler in Australia’s 434, who had quipped “Guys, I think we’ve done a good job. They’re 15 runs short.”

Shamsi likes his boisterous one-liners too. And his showboating and noisy over-the-top pantomime aggression.

After starring in a T20 win against Ireland earlier, he would tell South African journalist Telford Vice, “In my young age, I started as a seamer but was told I’m not quick enough to be a fast bowler so became a spinner. Grew up watching Andre Nel, Dayle Steyn, Allan Donald, that’s where aggression comes from.”

He knows it’s a double-edged sword and a bowler can be packed off, but it can disrupt batters too. “Whatever it takes to win. I’m in charge of making our presence felt on the ground and ensure the team never backs down from opponents,” he added.

Shamsi recently responded to Darren Sammy’s tweet on who would win the T20 World: “Come on skipper, you know the answer to this already…. South Africa of course.” Scroll down the thread, and some mocker mangles his grammar: “are you comedy me”. A good laugh was had by all. Pressure punctured.

“He’ll say things like ‘I’ll single-handedly win this,” Prasanna says, “Whether it happens or not, it gives confidence to people close to you – your team.”

***

Shamsi’s made it to the top of rankings, taking 49 wickets from 42 T20Is, at a strike-rate of 14.8 and averaging 6.6. There’s been a bucketful of wickets in franchise cricket and The Hundred. He’s 31 and has bidden his time to make it to the national team, and another 4 years into the Playing XI. The Wicket then, is an ocassion to celebrate, he reckons.

“I’m a human being and not a robot and want to make long-lasting happy memories that will live with me forever long after my career is done and that is the reason behind my celebrations,” he wrote in a social media post once. “My celebrations mean no disrespect to the opponents. They help me enjoy myself, switch on and off during the game to release some pressure, and put some smiles on people’s faces too.”

There’s the “Shoe” that got going in the West Indies, where within seconds of a wicket, he’d shrug his ankle open from the left shoe and pretend to speak on a landline receiver. Then there’s the bus driver-celebration with Carlos Braithwaite and something about a birdie’s chirp. A flying kiss to the wife and a mock punch to a fielder like a streets hip hopper. Though the untold back-stories raise anticipation of what he’ll whip up next.

Prasanna says there can be new hairdos before every game, sometimes “thrice a week”, and that magic tricks and celebrations are practiced as diligently as the googlies and top-spinners. “Not only will he say, ‘Tomorrow I’ll get Ben Stokes out.’ He’ll also ask you to watch the celebration.”

Amongst his most famous on-field triumph-trumpetings after snaring a batter is pulling a wand out of a hankey – a magician’s staple. But never in cricket, where magic’s glossary is slathered on the slow bowlers and their guiles.

T20 commentators love his name, lending it a South American football match caller’s vroom: “Shaaa-mzzziii”. But it’s the celebrations that can befuddle the most trained of raconteurs. When Shamsi got Wihan Lubbe in the Mzansi Super League, the commentator would build up to the expected celebration. “Is the shoe coming off? No. Look at that…it’s magic,” he would chortle. Cricket was momentarily put to the side, before he resumed confused: “That was a legspinner…… Beg your pardon… Offspinner… That did the trick..” Shamsi’s delivery had jagged away from the leftie and the post-celebration left the commentator’s mind in knots.

Appearing on the Dan Nicholl Show in SA, Shamsi had pulled one of those ‘I can guess the card pulled out of the deck after being shuffled’ tricks. It was ace of spades.

Magic had been his fallback option till age 16, he’d say. “So if cricket doesn’t work out… I ll practice magic for 10 years… But naa… It’s gonna work out.. I’ll bamboozle you all,” he would say, charming the audience.

At the start of the magic gig, Shamsi had handed a sealed envelope to the host. “Sealed with Proteas saliva” Nicholl had joked with whispered reverence. The distracting envelope had briefly become the centrepiece, and Shamsi would explain later:
“You satisfied you made me stop shuffling when u wanted me to? Funny thing is…You thought you were in charge of the trick… Telling me when to stop. Even though it’s your show, I’m running this party… I was controlling you and I actually made you stop at a specific point. …And to prove that I had written down something in this envelope before starting the trick..” It read Ace of Spades.

Shamsi’s assortment of Chinaman, is a bit like that: planned spontaneity. Allan Donald in a video while introducing him to RCB few seasons ago, said: “Left arm, tweaks it this way, tweaks it that way, then tweaks it the other way.” Offering attacking options in the middle overs, with his ability to turn ball both ways, and variations of top spinner, the side spinner and googly, makes him effective against both lefties and righties. The constant explosion of activity – before, right after when appealing (he once did a spot of bhangra jumps, then sat down altogether while pleading a decision) and when celebrating, is in fact the sealed envelope distraction.

Yet, bad days are not unfamiliar to Shamsi, and his role can be flexible like the magician’s wand, like in the West Indies, to keep things quiet, contain against the big power hitters. “There’s two ways to skin a cat… Not really fussed about not getting wickets in WI. That was a different role,” he told the media later.

Sometimes the magic is in not believing the flimflam and sleight. Like rankings. “I don’t lose sleep over being No 1. Obviously it’s a nice feeling to be on top. But I’ve said it before and I truly mean it. I don’t even think I’m the best bowler in our team. We have some great bowlers in the unit. Rankings don’t mean anything if a batsman gets hold of you. I don’t even know how those rankings work honestly.”

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Five great Twenty20 World Cup upsets

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